Aug. 19 (Bloomberg) -- Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was shown on state television praying in a Damascus mosque to mark the start of an Islamic holiday, a rare public appearance as soldiers battle rebels in several cities.
State-run Syrian Television broadcast footage of Assad praying at the Hamad mosque at end of the fasting month of Ramadan, accompanied by Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem and other top officials.
Assad, who used to be seen with his wife at restaurants and in public before the uprising began last year, has limited his appearances since the fighting started. Rebels are pushing forward with attacks and control large swaths of the country.
Assad spent 11 minutes at the mosque and didn’t linger to talk to worshippers as was his previous practice, Dubai-based Al Arabiya television said. Security at the mosque and in the vicinity were stepped up starting yesterday, it said. Trash cans were removed, bomb-sniffing dogs were brought in and elite Republican Guard forces and snipers were deployed before dawn.
Protests in several cities and towns across Syria erupted after morning prayers were held on the first day of Eid al-Fitr, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. It reported clashes in Hama, Daraa and Idlib and other provinces, with at least 37 people killed across the country today. The opposition Local Coordination Committees said in an e-mailed statement that its activists in Darayya released balloons marked with the names of the dead and their families on the first day of the holiday.
Vice President Faruq al-Shara wasn’t among the officials shown on television today with Assad. State television reported yesterday that al-Shara’s office denied reports that he had left the country and defected. Al Arabiya television had reported that Shara had left for neighboring Jordan.
Last month, a bomb attack in Damascus killed key members of the military establishment including Assad’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawkat, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajhah and the vice president’s military adviser, Hasan Turkmani.
The increasing violence led the United Nations mission in Syria to suspend its activities in June. The mission’s mandate ends today after the UN failed to extend it. The head of the mission, Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye, yesterday called on all parties involved in the Syrian conflict to “stop this violence that is causing such suffering to the innocent people of Syria,” according to a transcript e-mailed by his office.